Tuesday, January 03, 2006


One of the funny questions I hear people ask is whether someone "speaks Chinese." My understanding has always been that China is chock full of languages, and even the "minor" languages may have more speakers than say, Flemish. Thus, a person could speak a Chinese language with 20 million speakers and be essentially useless depending on what you need "Chinese" for. L's experience supported this, with Chinese students often telling her that their time in the United States improved their English, as well as their Mandarin, since they used that to speak to Chinese people from all over Greater China.

Today the Los Angeles Times had a very interesting article on the decline of Cantonese relative to Mandarin both in China and in the United States. If and when the link requires a password, use your Chicago Tribune name and password (if you have them) and it will work. The joys of corporate newspaper ownership.

Anyway, apparently the Chinese communities in North America have tended to be Cantonese speakers. This was because the provinces from which immigration was most easily accomplished were in the Cantonese-speaking south, and Hong Kong. However, in the time since most of the residents in North American Chinatowns emigrated, the PRC government has done a more effective job in pushing the use of Mandarin as the official language of China. Thus, more recent immigrants often are Mandarin speakers. In addition, more business in China is apparently being conducted in Mandarin than was true before.

The funny thing is that part of the lament is that Cantonese speakers believe that swearing in Mandarin is simply not as interesting or effective as swearing in Cantonese. The example given was:

Take the popular Cantonese expression chi-seen, which means your wires have short-circuited. It is used, often affectionately, to call someone or something crazy. The Mandarin equivalent comes off to Cantonese people sounding like "You have a brain malfunction that has rendered your behavior unusual."

Say what you want, but the Mandarin sounds like a computer translation. Maybe the Cantonese speakers have a point.

Meanwhile, a New York Cantonese-speaker made me wonder if the Cantonese/Mandarin difference could be compared to the difference between the Italians and the Germans. She said, "The Italians need body language. We don't need that at all. We have adjectives." So, maybe, the Cantonese are the Italians, with all of the stereotypes that encompasses, and the Mandarins, with their computer language, are like the Germans, with all of the stereotypes that encompasses.

I await feedback from my resident China hand, F. By the way F, feel free to use the comments section. It makes it look like I have readers.


Blogger F in ED said...

It's all Chinese these days. Or rather, the Chinese language in America is all demographics these days. Ask your canto-speaking NYC pal how she feels about the Fujianese who have taken over Chinatown...and does she really speak Cantonese? or Taishan-hua?

Historically, the majority of Chinese immigrants to the US were from Guangdong province. Over the past 20 years, and particularly since Bush the Elder's jailbreak amnesty after Tiananmen, they've been displaced by flocks of people from Fujian and other middle coastal provinces...

Now, on swearing, go grab a copy of "Mutant Mandarin" and tell me that you can't swear great in putonghua...'gong cuo' for a prostitute (public toilet, because everyone goes inside)...

Uh-huh, sure.

12:44 PM  
Blogger F in ED said...

oh, and another thing. isn't it "prequel"?

12:45 PM  

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